I am from Chicago and grew up in the 1980’s and 1990’s. So, I know more about Michael Jordan, and the Chicago Bulls’ glory years of the 1990’s than I’d like to admit. The championships, celebrations, and fun accompanying them, still reverberate in my mind all these years later.
What made the Chicago Bulls great? The easy answer is Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest basketball player in the history of the National Basketball Association. But this answer is too simplistic, and misses something that was much discussed during the Bulls heyday: the importance of role players.
The day was June 14, 1992. The Bulls were leading the Portland Trailblazers 3 games to 2 in their best of 7 NBA Finals Series. Playing on their home court, the Bulls were in position to win their second NBA Championship in a row. But trailing by 17 points in the fourth quarter, the game looked lost. Both Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen —an all-time great in his own right —were on the bench, and what happened next is legendary for Chicago Bulls fans: Bobby Hansen hit a three-point field goal—his only points of the entire game—that sparked a furious rally by players coming off the Bulls’ bench. These guys were not stars, but rather, role players. They knew, and accepted their roles on the team, and played them with humility and gave everything they had on the court. And before the afternoon was over, with both MJ and Scottie dominating the game down the stretch, the Chicago Bulls were NBA Champions again, winning the game 97-93.
When I mention Bobby Hansen to fellow Bulls fans, they always remember the play I refer to above. Moreso, they can name role players like Steve Kerr, Bill Wennington, and Jud Buechler from later Championship teams. These players taught us that playing a role on the team was vital to a team’s ultimate success. As the Bulls’ Head Coach Phil Jackson would remind us regularly in TV interviews, the team succeeded when Michael “let the game come to him,” and kept his “teammates involved.” This created chemistry, and the “Zen” Jackson desired for the team. It all worked because Michael played his role, that of the superstar, and the role players played theirs.
And each needed the other.
A comment I heard Adam Grant make recently on the EntreLeadership Podcast got me thinking about how the Bulls were able to mix role players with superstars. Grant says, “If you only hire ‘A’ players, then you probably have a ‘B’ team.” Leaders tend to spend a lot of their energy, however, on hiring “A” players. We read books, attend seminars, and create hiring strategies around hiring “A” players because we know that we need some “A” players to win (The Chicago
Bulls were pathetic both before and after Michael Jordan!). Yet, as Grant reminds us, hiring “A” all players won’t ensure success. Rather, like the Chicago Bulls, we need to fill out our roster with role players so that every role is filled.
In practice, this might mean that a sales leader seeks a solid “account manager,” rather than seeking another “business development manager.” This is subtle, but one role demands relational and support skills, while the other demands a lot of self-confidence and drive usually associated with an “A” player. Organizations need both to thrive, so it is up to the leader to decipher which skill set they need in a given context.
The challenge with this post is simple: ask yourself what kind of role are you missing on your team right now? Driving to specificity here makes all the difference.
You might discover that you are not missing a superstar, but rather a “Bobby Hansen.”
And fulfilling this role might similarly make all the difference to your team’s ultimate success!